Once thought to be extinct in India, the markhor (Capra falconeri) – the world’s largest mountain goat – was found at two sites in Jammu and Kashmir after the Wildlife Trust of India, a conservation organisation, started a survey in 2005.

They found that the markhor is restricted to two areas in Jammu and Kashmir: the Kajinag National Park in Baramulla district close to the line of control and the Hirpora Wildlife Sanctuary in Shopian district in the northern slopes of the Pir Panjal mountain range.

Little historical information is available about the markhor as it occurs along disputed international borders. Fragmented populations of different sub-species of markhor are found till Afghanistan and Tajikistan. The animal is listed as near threatened in the IUCN Red List and is included in Schedule 1 of the Indian Wildlife Protection Act (1972) and the Jammu and Kashmir Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1978.

After healthy populations were found in these two areas, there was a focus on conservation through the declaration of protected areas. The Limber and the Lachipora wildlife sanctuaries were clubbed to form the Kajinag National Park in 2007.

Conserving the markhor

From October 2004 to April 2005, the Wildlife Trust of India conducted the first range-wide survey of the species in India since Independence. It found that the markhor’s range has shrunk from approximately 300 square km in the late 1940s to about 120 square km in 2004-’05, says a study published in 2009.

Wildlife Trust of India is currently engaging with local communities and migratory herders to reduce the pressure on grazing lands and increase awareness about the markhor. The work is being done in collaboration with the wildlife department.

“Though found inside protected areas, the Hirpora population of the markhor is in a critical state due to the Mughal road (connecting Kashmir Valley with Poonch) cutting through the Hirpora Wildlife Sanctuary, the presence of power transmission lines and excessive livestock pressure,” said Wildlife Trust of India project lead of the Markhor Recovery Project, Riyaz Ahmad. “The latter has increased because bona fide herders are shifting to non-traditional herding practices for economic reasons.”

According to Rashid Naqash, the regional wildlife warden of Kashmir, Hirpora and Kajinag are important landscapes vital for the conservation of the markhor. These areas lie on the Pir Panjal side of the valley and the species’ population found here is called the pir panjal species of the markhor (Capra falconeri cashmiriensis).

“It is a flagship species for us,” Naqash added. “We are carrying out a programme for the recovery of the markhor in these landscapes. By adding new areas and corridors as well as expanding Hirpora, we have been able to recover the species from the brink of extinction.”

Intesar Suhail, the wildlife warden of Shopian division, said the markhor recovery project started in 2009. After lands were diverted from the Hirpora sanctuary for the Mughal road, the department received compensatory funds which was utilised in the recovery programme. Suhail explained that though conservation has been carried out earlier as well, the recovery initiative gave it a thrust.

Threats at large

Poaching and overgrazing, besides insurgency, are threatening the markhor. To reduce grazing, most protected areas have been declared as no-grazing zones for non-traditional herders through patrolling which ensures entry only for registered herders.

“Many herders try to sneak in, which can affect the species’ population,” Ahmad added. “The wildlife department is trying to prevent poaching and spread awareness by involving local communities.” The Indian Army, which is also an important stakeholder in markhor conservation, is being sensitised through workshops and presentations.

The markhor population is quite stable in Kajinag where there are about 250 individuals. In Hirpora, dominated by alpine and sub-alpine habitats, several sites have been mapped as critical markhor areas and efforts are on to release these areas from livestock pressure and disturbance caused due to the presence of herders and their settlements.

Consultations with herders are on to motivate them not to bring the livestock of non-bonafide herders in these sites. But moving the bonafide herders out is still a challenge because they generally use their assigned pastures which they have been using for years. Some, who have got jobs, rent out their pastures to non-bonafide herders to earn money and retain a sort of ownership. These non-traditional herding practices have more than doubled the livestock numbers.

Livestock is the only source of income for a group of nomadic herders and their animals occupy potential markhor habitats. Photos credit: Wildlife Trust of India

According to Suhail, with the Mughal road it has become easy for nomadic herders like the Bakkarwals to come into the Kashmir valley from Rajouri and Poonch districts in the Jammu region. “The Hirpora Wildlife Sanctuary has been a historical gateway for herders to reach the valley,” he said. “Generally, they use the Peer Ki Gali path. At present, we facilitate their travel through the sanctuary. Earlier, they used to stay in the sanctuary but now they travel fast though some nomadic families reside in the sanctuary area. They are being monitored.”

In Kajinag, about 12,000 sheep, goats and other livestock belonging to the migratory Bakkarwals and local herders occupy the region between May and September, says an interim project report. Livestock is the only source of income for the Bakkarwals and their animals occupy potential markhor habitats.

In Hirpora, the herder pressure is at its maximum. Sameer Khazir, assistant field officer with Wildlife Trust of India, said the approach has always been with the Bakkarwals and other herder communities in the fringes of both Kajinag and Hirpora. “There are about 500 migratory herders’ families in Hirpora,” he added. “In Kajinag, we have only 10 families. As it is close to the LOC, the Army does not allow them to be present because of security reasons. We want them to graze their livestock as they have been traditionally coming for years, but not in critical markhor habitats.”

To reduce the dependency of herders on fuel wood for cooking during the time they are in transit, subsidised gas cylinders under the Ujjwala scheme are being distributed to them. Khazir pointed out herders cut down juniper trees, which causes soil erosion. They leave for their homes in September but till the time they remain, it is difficult to sight markhor, he added.

Nomadic way of life

Mohammad Shabir, a herder from the Bakkarwal community based in Rajouri, said he had never seen a markhor. “We do not get any benefits like ration during monsoon,” Shabir said. “It takes us over a month to reach the valley by walking, and during the rains, it becomes even difficult for us. We stay in the valley for three months and then come back to Rajouri. We sometimes stay at night in the Hirpora sanctuary during our travel. But we have been told not to stop over and establish our dhoks (seasonal makeshift dwellings).”

Shabir added that herders have been asked to graze their animals at lower elevations. “We do not know if the markhor exists at higher elevations or not,” Shabir added. “We have been grazing animals here for generations. Most of us own 20-30 animals.”

However, herder Mohammad Azam from Rajouri told Mongabay-India that he had seen the markhor in higher elevations. “Though I have seen about five to eight of them they run away when one tries to go near them,” he said. Azam admitted that due to livestock grazing, the markhor gets less pasture.

Yash Veer Bhatnagar, senior scientist at the Mysuru-based Nature Conservation Foundation, said, “Livestock pressure is increasing in the markhor range,” Bhatnagar added. “The pressure had declined considerably in the 1990s due to insurgency, but with the improving political situation, this is changing. Many herders are exploring new areas. Sometimes, local shepherds hand over their livestock to herders to graze them in the alpine areas throughout the summer.”

Besides overgrazing, hunting and poaching also threaten the species. “Though poaching decreased to a great extent after we reached out, it exists because markhor areas are cut off due to snowfall,” Ahmad of Wildlife Trust of India said. However, wildlife warden Naqash added that poaching and hunting do not happen often, though there may have been a few stray incidents, while Bhatnagar of NCF said that since the use of firearms is controlled in Jammu and Kashmir, the problem may not be that acute.

Mitigating the grazing problem is a challenge as there is a huge market demand for livestock products. Bhatnagar feels that the issue can be resolved by giving herders alternative sources of income, establishing livestock-free reserves and developing participatory pasture management plans, he added. He also pointed out that in Jammu and Kashmir, there is no agency to maintain records of herders coming into the alpines.

“Alpine regions and temperate forests inhabited by the markhor are areas where increasing livestock pressure causes direct disturbance to wildlife and depletes forage available for wild species,” he said. “By the time autumn sets in, there is not much forage left for wild herbivores.”

Solutions at hand

The Sher-e-Kashmir University of Agricultural Sciences and Technology of Kashmir is conducting socio-economic studies on herders. Khursheed Ahmad, senior scientist heading the wildlife sciences division, said the vital issue is analysing the impact of grazing on markhor landscapes.

“The problem of disease transmission from livestock to markhor poses a huge problem,” the senior scientist added. “Since markhor and livestock use the meadows in summer simultaneously, there is a chance of transmission which may wipe out the entire markhor population as it is restricted only to a particular area.”

According to him, the tribal affairs department approached the university regarding knowledge on pasture availability and the carrying capacity of the landscape where Gujjars and Bakkarwals graze their animals. The fieldwork started last August and is now on hold due to Covid-19.

“They have been using the pastures for decades,” Khursheed Ahmad said. “The pastures are denuded and we want to assess their productivity and see how it can support grazing. We will assess the nutritional value of grasses and herbs consumed by the animals and see what kind of interventions can be made.”

Poaching and overgrazing, besides insurgency, are threatening the markhor population in Jammu and Kashmir. Photo credit: Wildlife Trust of India

Besides the university’s efforts, the wildlife department is working with youth in the region for exploring eco-tourism opportunities to kindle interest in the markhor. A major problem is that the LOC has fragmented the markhor habitats. As a result, many sensitive areas are out of bounds even for wildlife officials.

Riyaz Ahmad said there is a need for landscape-level conservation plan and site-specific management intervention to protect the markhor. If we want to save the pir panjal population, we have to protect markhor areas from resource exploitation, livestock grazing and poaching,” he added. “Additionally, guns in markhor habitats should be seized, at least, during the critical period (November to April) when the animals are pregnant and come down to lower elevations due to heavy snowfall.”

This article first appeared on Mongabay.